The growing number of unhired taxis parked at operators' premises points to an industry that is close to saturation point. The average rate of taxis that were unhired was 5.9 per cent for the first 11 months of last year, up from 4.2 per cent in 2015. More than 1,620 taxis are now sitting idle in the yards of taxi companies, up from 1,190. This increase comes even as the total fleet of taxis in Singapore shrank from 28,300 at the end of 2015 to 27,500 currently. The picture for those offering private-hire services is not pretty either. Checks by this newspaper last month revealed that there were close to 1,000 brand-new cars lying unused at a number of multi-storey carparks here.
However, consumers who have long complained of empty taxis whizzing past them or being stranded on a rainy day without a cab in sight are seeing better days. Not only is there ample supply but the fares charged by the ride-hailing apps are often significantly lower, owing to a deluge of promotional offers. Even those who remained loyal to the taxi companies have generally found it easier to hail a cab.
But while consumers may cheer the situation, this may not be a sustainable state of affairs. As their takings drop, more taxi drivers will leave the taxi firms. The firms will have to deal with the problem of empty cars and lower revenue. Meanwhile, for the drivers at the private-car hire companies, even if their earnings rise during peak periods when surge pricing takes effect, the rise in competition means that they still have to put in long hours. Hence the discussion of having a more level playing field. For the Ubers and Grabs of this world, this would mean their drivers being subject to more regulations and checks, just like those at taxi companies. Other suggestions include a relook at the current complicated pricing model from the taxi companies. Of particular importance is the problematic role played by various surcharges. Admittedly, these were introduced to achieve equilibrium between demand and supply, but that function has been overshadowed by the glut in the latter.
What will complicate moves to resolve the taxi situation will be the slowdown in the economy. Many, if not most of the drivers, are the breadwinners of the family. Retrenched workers are likely to turn to driving as a short-term measure at least to tide them over until they find another job. That will add to the pool of available drivers and reduce the number of unhired vehicles. But the economic downturn could also mean more people tightening their belt and eschewing taxi rides. By any measure, meeting the various demands of industry stakeholders in an economic slowdown will be a tough balancing act. Prospects will grow brighter once the economy improves. In the meanwhile, drivers must do all they can to improve service standards to attract the elusive passenger.